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Steve Hansen: ‘Settled science’ often isn’t

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Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 12:00 am

Most of us have heard various pundits declare the following axiom as undisputed truth: “The science is settled.”

But is this statement really an oxymoron? Can there really be such a thing as “settled science”?

Well actually, yes.

Let’s take a brief historical look at some abstract thinkers from the past who thought their ideas should never be challenged. Here’s also a review of those who dominated the thinking of their times and how their concepts were “settled.”

Let’s start with the ancients. The Greek scholar Pythagoras was brilliant at calculating geometry. Every college-prep high school kid has heard of his ageless theorem. Pythagoras certainly believed the science was settled for him. But around the same time in 450 B.C., a philosopher named Zeno stood up and challenged various ideas that the great guru of geometric equations had to offer.

Zeno’s thinking is still discussed in quantum physics classes today. One of his concepts is known as “Zeno’s Paradox.” An example of this occurs while a running human is studied. The man’s actions must be broken down into their smallest frames until he’s no longer moving, thus creating a dilemma: How can movement be studied when there is no longer movement?

When Pythagoras could not answer some of the challenges Zeno issued on his theoretical positions, the geometric giant simply had Zeno executed, thus settling the science for his time.

Fast forwarding to the Renaissance era. Everyone has heard of Galileo Galilei, the famous mathematician and astronomer. He questioned the beliefs of the intellectuals during his age regarding their rejection of heliocentrism — the astronomical model in which the sun is the center of the solar system. The vast majority of astronomers disagreed with this premise, based on what they thought was a missing observed stellar parallax (measurement of star distances and their relative positions).

As a result of this “heresy,” Galileo was investigated by the Roman Inquisition of 1615. They concluded that heliocentrism was untrue. Consequently, the forward-thinking scientist was forced to recant his conclusions and spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Once again, the science was settled, but this time by a 17th-century version of “peer review.”

By the late 1800s, Lord Kelvin and most of the physicists of his day believed that there was nothing more to be considered when it came to their views on thermodynamics, heat and energy. But then, a pesky little patent clerk named Albert Einstein came along and published his own studies — demonstrating that Kelvin and his crew had totally missed the mark. Einstein alone clearly showed that the science of his day was far from settled.

Later, when Einstein would not go along with the scientific views of Nazis, the regime considered settling the science by whacking the unique thinker on his return to the “vaterland.” But fortunately, in 1933, Einstein decided to immigrate to the United States before any succinct plans for his elimination could be formulated.

Also in the 1930s, top-rated mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead published their be-all and end-all views on symbolic logic in a work called “Principia Mathematica” (pretty classy title, eh?). But then, Kurt Godel entered the picture, proving that Russell and Whitehead were not only wrong in their thinking, but that their conclusions were actually impossible. Thankfully, in this case, no one proposed “neutralizing” Dr. Godel.

I’m sure all of us can provide many examples of faulty “settled science,” but I think the point is made. Scientific conclusions are never settled, but are on-going processes of discovery that can change as new data are acquired and reviewed.

They only way things become “settled” is to eliminate those who question the status quo — either by shunning, intimidating, ridiculing, or as practiced in some parts of the world, executing them. Ironically, this method of settling does not fit within the definition of what is truly science. The myth of “settled science” continues to this day for a variety of political and social causes.

In the meantime, we could certainly resolve today’s controversial issues by repeating human history and eliminating those who logically question the beliefs, hypotheses and conclusions of the majority. But that would seen just too barbaric in our enlightened age to ever consider such an option — or would it?

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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  • steve hansen posted at 6:55 pm on Wed, Mar 19, 2014.

    steve hansen Posts: 2

    Excellent and observant point, Mr. Tillett. The statement should have been "Pythagoras' FOLLOWERS." Ref: physicist, Dr. Russell Targ. But even that view is subject to conjecture.

  • Jerome Kinderman posted at 1:18 pm on Wed, Mar 19, 2014.

    Jerome R Kinderman Posts: 2370

    It is definitely interesting that scientists have now "proven" that the universe began with a big bang. I don't necessarily disagree with that notion - after all, something had to occur in order for things to start moving along.

    But where they're stuck is what was going on just before the "bang." "Nothing" is not an acceptable notion. They admit that they don't know; I've watched quite a few universe-related documentaries where they reveal their ignorance on that point. Of course common sense dictates that something had to exist that came together with just the right combination of elements and other "stuff" to create this absolute miracle we call the universe.

    Yet the biggest question still remains for those who don't believe in a Creator - "WHY," as in "why" are we here; "what" is the point; "where" did we come from; "who" created all of this? I am anxiously awaiting that newsbreak when scientists reach agreement about that little tidbit. Or is that not one of the important "W's" anymore?

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 1:16 pm on Wed, Mar 19, 2014.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    Technically there are several "dinosaurs" humans existed/exist with. Alligators and crocodiles, turtles, sharks several fish http://listverse.com/2010/05/14/top-10-prehistoric-fish-alive-today/ and even rumors and potential carcass of a plesiosaurus caught in a Japanese fishing net ( though I have doubts on that one But it made for a fun Google read.)

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 12:14 pm on Wed, Mar 19, 2014.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Mr. Kindseth wrote: "Joanne, I am trying to make sense of your garbled slurs."

    "Slurs?" Sorry, Mr. Kindseth - you are the only one consistently guilty of slurs, i.e., your continualy use of the word "lemmings."

    Actually, I ENCOURAGE YOU to look up "Lemming" so that you can discover for yourself the error of your intended SLURS. That is, of course, unless you deliberately choose to just follow the right wing crowd here by perpetrating its use.

    I did not say that YOU are a religious fanatic. I only hypothesized that you had similar beliefs to the hundreds of thousands who think the Earth is only 5000 or whatever years old. Besides - your Grand Canyon comment had not been posted when I made my comment - so my apologies to your narrowly defined sense of "modern" science.

    I never made a "snide slur" against Charles Krauthammer's condition - I you read my comment without prejudice (which is nearly impossible, apparently) I stated that his greatest ability for scientific understanding would be quadriplegia (for obvious reasons).

    Please don't group with me others in this forum who have a habit of mocking those with physical disabilities or who would wish to deny those who have them healthcare, as Charles Krauthammer would do if he had his way.

    I imagine that he would have a MUCH DIFFERENT outlook if he was sitting in his wheelchair on some street in Washington, DC, asking for handouts and begging for treatment if not for his plush jobs at the Washington Post and FOX News.

  • John Kindseth posted at 10:04 am on Wed, Mar 19, 2014.

    John Kindseth Posts: 246

    Joanne, I am trying to make sense of your garbled slurs. Why would I believe the earth is 5,000 years old when I referred to the millions of years exposed in the walls of the grand canyon. I don't recall making any comments about dinosaurs. Your comment about the universe expansion makes my point. You are suggesting that your limits to "settled science" only encompasses the last 100 years ? You call unidentified people as "religious fanatics" ?? And I am a name caller ? How did you drag religion into a "settled science" discussion ? Many call Republicans "dinosaurs" so under that logic, you exist alongside dinosaurs. Why are you so angry and hateful toward rational discourse ? You snide slur about Krauthammer's unfortunate paralysis is vile and unprofessional.

  • Jeff Tillett posted at 11:03 pm on Tue, Mar 18, 2014.

    Jeff Tillett Posts: 558

    Too bad Pythagorus died in 495 BCE and Zeno lived from c. 490 to c. 430 BCE.

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 6:31 pm on Tue, Mar 18, 2014.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Funny that Krauthammer calls President Obama a "propagandist." We know climate change is REAL. What Obama DIDN'T say was that it is caused by carbon emissions, but Krauthammer implies that was his meaning and apparently our more gullible readers think that's what he said.

    And when Charles Krauthammer becomes a climate scientist, let me know.

    The only thing he is qualified to comment on scientifically is medical science and specifically quadriplegia.

  • John Kindseth posted at 3:26 pm on Tue, Mar 18, 2014.

    John Kindseth Posts: 246

    Oh, yeah steve, Great article and topic. Do you remember when our doctors applied Leeches? and talked about the "Four Humors"....how about slashing our punctures and "sucking out the poison". Climate change? Read what is found in the layers of the grand canyon over the millions of years. How about Pompeii ? Keep reading and tweeking the noses of the Lemmings.

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 1:16 pm on Tue, Mar 18, 2014.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    You know, Mr. Kindseth, you simply cannot make a comment in this forum without name-calling, can you?

    It would be perfectly fine if Dr. Hansen were naming scientific discoveries made in the past 100 years - even Einstein is a little too long ago - but really, Galileo, Pythagoras, Kelvin - hundreds of years ago?

    And HOW SAD would that be if the human race had not made any scientific progress in the meantime?

    Next he'll be telling us that Cancer and HIV will never have a cure! I'm sure that's what they thought in the middle ages when the Black Plague struck.

    Now we are finding out the the universe is STILL expanding and that there may be multiple universes.

    But I suppose YOU are sticking to the myth that the Earth is only 5000 years old or whatever all those religious fanatics think and that humans existed alongside dinosaurs.

    Lemmings indeed!

  • John Kindseth posted at 11:39 am on Tue, Mar 18, 2014.

    John Kindseth Posts: 246

    Great topic Steve: For those interested Chas has another great take on the Settled Science Lemmings...


  • Kevin Paglia posted at 7:18 am on Tue, Mar 18, 2014.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2111

    "The man's actions must be broken down into their smallest frames until he's no longer moving, thus creating a dilemma: How can movement be studied when there is no longer movement?"

    Shoot I do this in baseball all the time. Too much was going on for me as a coach to see it all so I started using a high speed camera to catch my son pitching and batting. Then study frame by frame to see what needed to be worked on.

    I got the idea from some golfers who did the same thing.


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